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By Leslie Berkman

RISMEDIA, March 24, 2008-(MCT)-The San Bernardino County district attorney’s office has taken five people into custody and is seeking two more who are suspected of running a bait-and-switch ring using lies and forgery to sell mortgages at predatory interest rates throughout California.

The State attorney general’s office said it has shut down a complex lending scheme by obtaining a court order to freeze all of the related companies’ real estate and bank accounts. It also seized cars and real estate worth millions of dollars owned by Eric Michael Pony, 25, the Tarzana man who is suspected of headed the operation.

District Attorney Michael Ramos said for nine months his office has been investigating the operation that he called “the worst of the worst of predatory lenders.” Telemarketers sought victims statewide, often targeting the elderly and many people who spoke no English, he said.

Deputy Attorney General Christina Tusan said there are probably hundreds of victims. Sixty have been identified.

Seven of the alleged victims reside in San Bernardino County. The district attorney’s office said the seven have lost $2.5million. The State attorney general has filed a lawsuit claiming an estimated $20 million in penalties and restitution.

Ramos said the San Bernardino County Superior Court issued warrants on Friday for the arrest of Pony, his sister Paulette Pony, 23, also of Tarzana; Jacob Shawn “Coby” Franco, 46, of Encino; Eli Hassine, 25, of Sherman Oaks; Carol Binnie Pencille, 57, of Granada Hills; Sibpun Ampornpet, 31, of North Hollywood and Jason Imperial Burbidge, 35, of West Hills.

All were taken into custody Tuesday except for the Ponys, who are still at large.

“We are looking for them. We don’t know where they are,” said Larry Roberts, the lead deputy district attorney on the real estate fraud unit. The charges included conspiracy, grand theft, forgery and elder abuse.

At a news conference Tuesday, Ramos said the scheme was marketed over the telephone by callers who said they represented a company called Lifetime Financial. He said victims were told they could refinance their homes and cash out funds at fixed interest rates.

Instead they got mortgages with high interest rates they could not afford, Ramos said, and most of the money obtained from refinancing went to the brokers in the form of fees.

Ramos said the victims were subprime borrowers who would not have qualified for the mortgages, which in some cases required them to make monthly payments that exceeded their income. He said in most cases the terms of the mortgages were set without the borrowers’ permission.

That was done, he said by falsifying loan documents, forging borrowers ‘ signatures, using notary services illegally and padding home values above their market value by using phony appraisals, Ramos said.

Tracylyn Sharrit, 40, of San Bernardino, said when a Lifetime Financial representative called her one evening in 2006, she was interested in his proposal to refinance the adjustable mortgage on her family’s three-bedroom house into a fixed rate.

But she said when she went to sign the loan documents at the company’s Studio City office she found the terms had been changed. She said she refused to sign the documents and demanded that they be rewritten. But she said when she called to find out when the new paperwork would be ready, she was told the loan was already in escrow.

Sharrit said her name was forged on the loan documents and misspelled.

Sharrit said she and her husband, Ronald, struggled to make the monthly payments on the new mortgage, which she said increased from about $1070 to more than $1800. She said they cannot afford it and have asked their lender for a four-month forbearance. They hope to get financial help from the lawsuits.

“For the first time in my life I am late on my mortgage,” Sharrit said.

Copyright © 2008, The Press-Enterprise, Riverside, Calif.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.